How can community gardens lead to social cohesion?

In the same way that the assumption that more transparency will automatically lead to empowerment, it is not enough to assume that encouraging urban agriculture will automatically lead to social cohesion.

Contrary to what many might think, most people involved in community gardening don’t have a green thumb. Many have never gone farther than buying a pot of basil in the supermarket, and chucking it out after a few weeks of it withering. Instead, people are enthusiastic and open to learning.

In general, people are attracted to community gardens is because it’s an outdoor activity, it creates a communal place, and often a place to connect with neighbours through that activity. (And of course, there’s the food that just tastes better.) Community gardens often double as a playground, a place for summer barbecues, and community events. They are inherently social phenomena.

Creating places for people to come together holds much transformative potential to cross social boundaries and bring diverse groups together. This is increasingly important in suburbs and cities where people are isolated, space is increasingly privatised and you have to pay for an expensive (and watery) coffee to sit on a bench.

However, in one of the most densely populated high-income countries in the world, land is at a premium. Much of the land available for urban farming is only in areas that are already [partially-] closed off. For instance, school gardens are on private and fenced off land, even if they want to open up to the neighbourhood. How do you dance that fine line between including the neighbours and not advertising publicly in order to ‘keep out the riff raff’?

Using the lens of Critical Race Theory, Reynolds (2015) [gated] explores the mechanisms by which urban farming and community gardening can, or don’t, lead to social cohesion in the context of New York City. She traces how institutional racism still manifests itself, creating a division between the well-funded, White-led, middle class gardens, and the less well-funded Hispanic and African-American led gardens. Not helped that media portrayals of urban gardening as ‘hip’ have focused and perpetuated this image.

Reynolds does provide hopeful conclusions though – social cohesion projects can be emancipatory and truly inclusive. She ends with:

Beginning to change the dominant narrative of urban agriculture may be a part of shifting powerstructures in the food system, and this includes recognizing innovation where it exists: among those who are working to change structural oppression at the same time that they address day-to-day community needs.


A community garden can be a space for young and old to come together – source

For example, I recently spoke with a social startup seeking to build a new social media platform aimed at increasing inclusion and social cohesion in neighbourhoods. It’s a great initiative and they have an openness to editing their software in response to communities’ needs, which is a reflexive and adaptive way of working.

However, they need to be careful that the types of people who tend to use such platforms are already well-educated, white and middle class, and there needs to be conscious effort to include those that don’t fall into that category. Especially currently, there is a strong political agenda for inclusion and integration of the recent population of asylum seekers. How can we extend social inclusion platforms to these critically vulnerable populations, rather than pushing them further away?

Well, translating services into English and Arabic is already a major step forward. Most importantly its letting people know that it is a safe, multi-lingual space.

Similar strategies can work for turning community gardens into inclusive spaces.

In order for urban farms and community gardens to reach their emancipatory potential, there needs to be a few key elements:

  1.  an awareness of structural forms of exclusion relevant to the context
  2. decision to capitalise on the empowerment potential of community gardens,
  3. a strategy and a theory of change in which to do so, which includes looking at the assumptions that have been at work so far and
  4. iterative self reflection as the process goes on

I’m a member of the board and the project management team of Urban Farming 035, a burgeoning network organisation for urban agriculture in a village-turned-city in the Netherlands. We are connect and support the different gardens throughout the city by building strategic connections between them. This year is one of much transformation, including officially becoming an association. As such, this is the year of thinking through our strategy, and building a theory of change relevant to our context.

What I’ve found to be the biggest change in practice is step 2 – the decision to actively pursue social justice goals. Changing people’s perspectives to look at the society in a new way is so important, especially when that new way is one where they have the power to change things, challenge power relations, do something. When people start to believe that they can actually do something that’s when the magic happens.

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